Senior Will Tennison spent the last four years accomplishing things no one else in the history of Verona boys tennis has come close to doing.
Last weekend, however, there was something not even the most decorated player in school history could do – bring home a state title.
The top seed at the WIAA Division 1 individual state tournament each of the past two years, Tennison ran into trouble last season with his shoulder and groin injuries. Healthy by all accounts last week, Tennison was unable to find his best tennis when he needed it most over the three-day tournament (March 30-June 1) inside Nielsen Tennis Stadium.
In a match that by all accounts looked more like a championship bout than a semifinal, Tennison lost for the first time this season 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 to Green Bay Southwest senior Johnny Zakowski. He then defeated sixth-seeded Aidan Schutter, a senior from Sun Prairie, to finish third.
Fellow senior Kevin Fan was also playing at state and suffered some bad luck, losing in the first round for the second straight year.
Tennison, a Marquette University recruit, put together enough points to finish a personal-best third place at state, ending the season 26-1. He is the only boy in program history to make it to the final eight, doing it in all four years of his prep career. He finished sixth as a freshman, fourth as a sophomore and withdrew in the round of eight due to injury last season.
“I’m definitely disappointed,” Tennison said. “You’re always disappointed when you don’t win or achieve a goal, but I’m looking forward to what’s coming up for me at Marquette.”
Tennison will room with DePere senior Nathan Balthazor as teammates at Marquette in the fall. Balthazor was seeded second at state but lost the championship match 7-5, 6-3 to Zakowski, the tournament’s fourth seed.
“I think we’re both going to be working extremely hard in the offseason just to get ready and to be better players,” Tennison said.
Tennison was unable to find his first serve consistently all tournament, and in the semifinal, he resorted to using his second serve all match against the player with the biggest first serve in the tournament.
“Even on this final day, I couldn’t get it there,” Tennison said. “The more double faults you hit, the worse you are mentally. It takes a toll on you.”
Compounding matters was Zakowski’s court coverage. Zakowski, who took fifth last season, played like a man possessed and rarely missed. Dictating points, Zakowski mixed up his shots, got to the net and forced Tennison to uncharacteristically spray balls all around the court.
Tennison changed the momentum a little in the second set as Zakowski started to miss a few shots. But whatever Tennison had going didn’t last in the third, as Zakowski jumped out to a 4-1 lead.
Tennison fought off match point to pull within a game at 5-4, but Zakowski held serve when it mattered most and rallied from a 30-0 deficit to take the final game with an overhead at the net.
Zakowski was a bit of an unknown all season as the only player in the top four at state Tennison hadn’t faced this year.
The seniors weren’t without a bit of history, though. Tennison was supposed to play Zakowski in the consolation bracket for a chance at fifth place last year but had to withdraw due to injury. He came back a week later at team state and defeated Zakowski 7-5, 0-6, 6-2 to give Verona a 4-3 win over Green Bay Southwest.
The loss to Zakowski set up a third-place match with Schutter, who had never beaten Tennison in seven previous attempts.
Coming off an emotional and physically draining three-set loss, Tennison came out hitting everything as hard as he could before tiring late, grinding out a 7-6 (3), 2-6, 7-5 win after a two-hour break.
“That was definitely one of my tougher matches of the season,” Tennison said. “I was running on fumes at the end. I was just trying to channel every ounce of energy I had into winning.”
To come back and finish third after a tough loss in the semifinals and win a third-place match in a second straight three setter, showed Tennison’s grit, coach Rick Engen said.
“He knew he had to come back and play, and I told him, ‘I love you no matter what, but I know you’re a winner. You don’t go out losing your last match.’”
Eighth-seeded Menomonee Falls senior Alex Budde (27-6) and his first serve were all that stood between Tennison and second trip to the quarterfinals. Tennison took control of play and won 6-3, 6-4.
“There are so many tough players in this tournament,” Tennison said. “Being one of the last four players is a remarkable accomplishment.”
Each took turns breaking the other’s serve in the first two games before Tennison rattled off four straight games to go up 5-1.
Up 5-4 in the second set and leading 30-15, Tennison sprinted to a Budde drop shot and hit a sliding passing shot to set up match point. Budde sliced a return into the net to give the match to Tennison on the next point.
“Alex is a really good player and he has a big serve, so it’s always important to hold your serve, which I’ve been struggling with so far this tournament,” he said.
Friday morning’s third round match in the round of 16 provided little real challenge to Tennison.
Able to put a little more pace on the ball, Tennison cruised against 16th-seeded Sam Rechek (22-11) of Eau Claire Memorial, winning 6-1, 6-2.
Tennison drew a first-round bye as a top seed and faced a Whitefish Bay senior Grey Waedekin (22-7) in the second round for the second straight year.
A pusher with a big, looping forehand, Waedekin frustrated Tennison enough to get six games off the top seed in a 6-2, 6-4 loss.